Friday, July 20, 2007

The raison d'etre

Boys and girls, Spot has not sent you over to Balkinization for a while now, but Professor Andrew Koppelman of Northwestern University Law School put up a post on July 19 that is too good to miss. It's called Religion as a conversation-starter. It isn't all that long; here are the opening grafs:

A noteworthy development in liberal political theory over the past 30 years or so has been the claim, by such distinguished thinkers as John Rawls, Bruce Ackerman, Ronald Dworkin, Thomas Nagel, Amy Gutmann, Dennis Thompson, Stephen Macedo, David Richards, Charles Larmore, Samuel Freeman, Richard Rorty, and Robert Audi, that in a liberal democracy, political discourse must rely on arguments that are not sectarian and can be assessed in terms of commitments that all citizens can share. The obvious target is religiously based political movements, and it is no accident that most of this theorizing was done after the Presidential election of 1980, when the religious right first became a potent force in American politics.

This claim has elicited a bitter response from religious thinkers, who have argued that this deprives politics of important moral resources and denies them the right to state what they believe. This response, which has not slowed the production of these liberal theories of public discourse, gives rise to a puzzle: why did the liberals converge on and keep producing new articulations of a proposal, in the name of social unity and comity, that was so widely received as an insult? How could so many brilliant people have been so rhetorically clumsy?

Why indeed? The "religious thinkers" even have a term for these people: secular humanists. They're just a bunch of moral relativists, slouching toward Gomorrah, in the words of Robert Bork. This is, of course, so much horse puckey. Koppelman continues:

I suspect that the answer has something to do with norms of civility that developed in the United States throughout the twentieth century. It is now well settled that it is impolite to challenge someone else’s religious beliefs. Religion is private. Even if you think your neighbor believes really stupid stuff, it’s not nice to say so. He can go to his church; you go to yours; don’t bother each other.

This formula works only so long as neither of you offers a religious argument that is supposed to govern something that will affect both of you. Suppose, for example, that you propose that homosexual sex be criminalized because it’s an abomination before God. How am I to respond? If I disagree, my obvious answer is to say that your religious beliefs are wrong. By hypothesis, that is what I really think. But it’s impolite to say that. So I have to twist around to find some way to say that your views ought not to govern political decisions, without having to say that they’re false. These political theorists have been doing the twist.

Spotty doesn't entirely agree with the professor's assertion here. But it does have an important kernel of truth: the conservative Christian community has no trouble criticizing Muslims, Jews (although it is politically aligned with Israel for apocalyptic reasons), and even liberal Christians, but people outside that community seem more reticent to criticize the Bible literalists. Conservative Christians like to think of themselves as oppressed; it's part of a martyr complex that is, well, fundamental to this group's self-identity, but they're really not.

There is a significant trend in politics and the law in the United States to expand the scope of the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment to the detriment of its Establishment Clause. Most of you, boys and girls, are familiar with the Bush Administration's faith-based initiatives. Recently, the Supreme Court held that a citizen of the United States had no standing to complain about the distribution of faith-based initiative money on the grounds that it was being used for sectarian purposes. It probably won't come as a surprise that the decision was 5 - 4.

The home-school movement, which Spot has discussed before, is premised on the belief that the country ought to be organized on religious ("natural or God's law") principles, not democratic ("positive law") ones. But the proponents of God's law admit to no possibility of error in their understanding of it or reticence about imposing their understanding on the rest of us. This is profoundly undemocratic. It is based on the notion, espoused by people like Katie from time to time, that "These my beliefs, and I am entitled to hold them; you're being intolerant of me if you don't." Spot has also discussed where tolerance of the intolerant will get you.

Then Professor Koppelman writes this:

Their strategy has been a disaster, because it has produced the opposite of what they have hoped. A doctrine grounded in universal respect has left a lot of actual citizens feeling profoundly insulted. This suggests that the norm of politeness needs to be revisited. As soon as A invokes religious reasons for his political position, then it has to be OK for B to challenge those reasons. It may be acrimonious, but at least we’ll be talking about what really divides us (and we’ll avoid the strange theoretical pathologies that have plagued modern liberal theory, though that seems to be a disease mainly confined to the academy). It’s more respectful to just tell each other what we think and talk about it.

Professor Koppelman just articulated the raison d'etre for the Cucking Stool. If he gets around to it, Spot may award the professor a Spotty™. If you want to base public policy on some pronouncement of Moses that is supposedly God's dictation, you better be prepared to take some heat from a jeering dog. And that goes for Muslims, too, if you think strict Sharia law is the way to go.

It is way past time for the mainline Christian community to stand up and start opposing the people that Chris Hedges rightly calls "American Fascists."

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